There's nothing worse than alien food when sightseeing.
Dr Rastus and I went to look at the little caldera in the warm, velvety twilight. We could smell it before we saw the infrared glow and heat haze above the small crater, a stink like a salt marsh, but hotter. It was surrounded by a raised rim of shiny lava rock, warm and comfortable to lean on. We peered over the edge at the black crust, shot with fiery cracks. Dr Rastus's fur was burning but he didn't believe me, not until the sharp scent of incinerated hair cut across the miasma of hydrogen sulphide. Then he squealed and thrashed his arms about, hitting me by mistake, but his hands were very soft, so the blow landed like a cushion. He and his fellow Malachanian, Dr Surlibob, were colleagues at the Institute. They did a lot of squealing, and that, together with their portly bearing and snoutish heads, made them look rather like big furry pigs that had learned to walk upright. Their hands and feet, however, were huge and mobile, and their eyes were beautiful - big, brown, with dark lashes, like an Earthly movie actress of the twentieth century.
As we wandered back to the carriage Dr Jumjum joined us. She was extremely amorphous and lumbering, like a creature designed for a marine existence, which her race, of course, originally was. The Faloons had evolved in a totally different manner from humans and Malachanians, rather like amoebas, and, in repose, she resembled a dirty pink inflatable sofa. She could change shape at will, and quickly; she could sprout legs, tentacles and multiple eye stalks. At this point in time, she looked like a cross between a hippo and a two-trunked elephant. She had admirable tentacular dexterity, and she spoke Anglic by forming an air-filled cavity in her skin, furnishing it with tongue and lips, and mouthing the air out. "I daren't go any nearer that volcano, dears," she said, "The hydrogen sulphide puts me to sleep, you know." This being the third time she'd told us, we mumbled our understanding.
It was getting late. We had started our outing early to view the famous Great Rift, a ten metre wide, two kilometre deep, chasm with lava flowing in it. This was the main tourist attraction on the planet, but some of us at the Institute had never seen it. We had lunched at a native inn, where we were served a number of dubious 'delicacies'. Dr Rastus had eaten enthusiastically, I less so, and Dr Jumjum hardly at all. We were on the last lap home to the Institute. The sun was low in the sky, and it was cold. Nevertheless, we might very well have got back into the quaint native carriage and completed the day trip without incident if it had not started to hail. Hail in these parts graduated in size from grape pips through grapeshot to grapefruit. This hail was at the low end, stinging but not dangerous. The lead draftanimal, however, reacted by going 'poomhuff' (an ill-understood fugue state of draftanimals precipitated by a dread of frostbite), breaking its pullchains, opening its wingcases and flying off towards the plane of the ecliptic. You hear about this kind of thing happening, but poomhuff was pretty rare even back then. Of course, the other draftanimals bolted and dragged the carriage away, pursued on foot by the native driver, and taking the other Malachanian, Dr Surlibob, now the only passenger aboard, on what he later described as an entertaining tour. (It can't have been all that entertaining, because I heard that when the runaway carriage returned driverless to the Institute stable, Dr Surlibob was discovered curled up and still squeaking hoarsely under the seat, his fur matted and soiled, and totally unable to give any clear account of events.) Once the rattling of the carriage, and the cries of the driver and Dr Surlibob's squeals had abated, here we were, members of three different species, fellow scientists, but not close friends, marooned in the barren wilds of a lightly inhabited planet together, and no-one's wristphone could get a signal this far from the Institute's antenna, which was only really intended for comms within the sprawling Institute itself..
I was the first to state the obvious: "It is becoming so dark that we don't dare to wander far, the temperature is plummeting, and the hail is enlarging. We must shelter."
"We should go to the caldera, it's warm there," suggested Dr Rastus.
"Oh, but I may fall asleep," said Dr Jumjum.
"Is that all that'll happen to you?" asked Dr Rastus.
"Oh, yes, it won't poison me. It's just something we do if our offspring can't sleep. We exude a little H2S, and off they go. A simple prod will awaken me again."
"No matter, then," said Dr Rastus, "We'll waken you if necessary."
So we just clustered in the lee of the volcanic blowhole for warmth, most of the hail now missing us or melting to rain as it passed over the crater. Dr Jumjum was still wary of the gases, but she came closer, and stood on Dr Rastus's tail by mistake and there was more squealing while we tried to figure out in the half dark which of her feet was at fault. She had deployed five pseudopoda at the time and she was pretty bulky, so it must have hurt.
We reassured each other that we were not worried. The Institute would send out a helicopter when we didn't return. There were no predators in this area, and the weather seemed to be improving slightly.
Sure enough, Dr Jumjum fell asleep very quickly, all her extrusions - eye stalks, legs, tentacles - subsided into her bulk, and she became a vast pink rubbery cushion. Dr Rastus leaned against her, and I eventually fell asleep listening to his regrettably porcine snores.
The sun was well above the horizon when I awoke, aching, but unharmed, to the whack of helicopter blades. Dr Jumjum was still fast asleep, still looking like a large squashed sphere. It took more than a 'simple poke' to rouse her. I finally had to deliver a serious punch before she popped out an eye, popped in a mouth, and said, "Good morning, dear. That was a nice nap. And I had a lovely dream."
There was no sign of Dr Rastus. I assumed he had awakened early and gone to look for Dr Surlibob and the carriage, so when the helicopter landed and Dr Jumjum and I were gathered up, I asked the rather sour-faced Rescue captain to have a look for him.
He grumbled: "The carriage came back to the stable late last night. No-one knew you were lost till the driver finally got in. He'd walked twenty kilometers in the dark. We scrambled before dawn, but we couldn't distinguish your infra red signature against that crater you were sleeping on. We've been searching around for hours till it got light and we could see you, but we haven't seen anyone else strolling about. Not on infra red or visual. He may have gone into a cave. There are a lot around here."
We were deposited back at the Institute, rather under a cloud at having caused so much trouble, though Dr Jumjum kept saying "It was hardly our fault, dear, it was that draftanimal."
More worrying was the fact that Dr Rastus never turned up, despite an extensive ground and air search. After a week, the search was abandoned. The general consensus was that Dr Rastus had probably fallen into the caldera in the dark, and been reduced to smoke in seconds.
Dr Jumjum seemed to take it very badly. She stayed in her room for days and didn't even emerge at mealtimes. This was something of a relief, because the Faloon method of eating is to slap a plateful of food against any vacant area of their skin, whereupon the skin under the plate cavitates (it's called, rather unattractively, 'invagination'), the food disappears into the orifice with the help of some temporary pseudopoda and the skin re-forms over the cavity. Most diners, however weird their own eating habits, found Dr Jumjum's presence at dinner rather unpleasant.
One morning, though, I received a message to visit her in her room. As soon as I saw her, I knew she was very distressed. Her shape was lumpy, and the skin greenish in hue.
"Oh, my dear, thank you for coming," she said.
"Not at all. I can see you are distressed. How can I help?"
"Well, I hardly know how to tell you. And I'm not at all sure. I may have been responsible for Dr Rastus's disappearance."
"What's on your mind? You don't think you pushed him into that crater, do you? He'd have squealed, and I'd have wakened up."
"No, not that. I've put on weight."
"Grief can do that," I said, though the opposite is more usually the case.
"And I'm excreting hairballs."
"Ah... Perhaps you're unwell."
She gazed at me with several eyes on tremulous stalks, desperate eyes with lush eyelashes. I had never noticed how attractive her eyes were. They reminded me of someone.
Dr Jumjum moaned quietly. "You don't understand. Dr Rastus was leaning on me when I fell asleep. I think I may have eaten him by mistake."
© Gil Williamson 2013 All Rights Reserved
Date and time of last update 08:20 Thu 05 Sep 2013
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